January 12, 2018


"The only weapon I've got is comedy."  -Mel Brooks

My daddy told me once that it's far easier for a man to be electrocuted by 110 volts than by 220 volts, because if you're shocked by a 220-volt wire, it will throw you a short distance and break the current, and maybe make stars and cartoon birds fly around your head.  But if you start conducting a 110-volt current, it can keep you from realizing it's happening and can go on for a long time.  He said the regular electrical outlets are more deadly that the big ones.  Like scorpions.  

Things sneak up.

They pulled me out.  I do not remember this.  I was later told that I was throwing punches and screaming at the ambulance personnel to put me back in, back into the river, back into the car where my pills and whiskey and plastic bag were helping me drown.  I was told that in the emergency room, I kept pulling out my I.V. lines and begging for someone to take me back there so I could die.  A nurse commented that I was one of the ones that worried her, the ones who came in and were livid instead of contrite and relieved.  The ones who had really meant it.


By the time I had regained my mind, I was already inpatient in the psych ward at the hospital.  I had apparently passed through some kind of lockdown process and then had been moved again.  I had access to a thin pillow and blanket on a lumpy twin bed, a few toiletries, a gown, and some socks.  They had taken my shoes.  And the altered state that had landed me there was a thing of the past, and I was matter-of-fact about it all.  Yep, I did that.  Nope, don't want to do it again.  Yep, feeling much better now.  Doctors stopped by and asked me those same questions, over and over, sometimes in my room, sometimes in the hallway, sometimes in the common area where people were sitting around watching TV and I was playing my 412th round of solitaire with new cards that kept slipping out of my hands.  

A visiting friend who had been "in" before told me to avoid my room and stay out in the common area as much as possible, and to participate in absolutely every activity offered.  This would be the fast track to leaving.  

I wasn't lying.  I did feel better.  This is where they figured out I was bi-polar, and that made all the difference.  My former meds weren't poisoning me any more, and they were giving me different ones, Dog only knows what.  I had a haze of artificial well-being.  But it was also my first experience with any form of imprisonment.  They had used the Eastern European Cold-War-type tactic of offering me the chance to voluntarily commit myself, so that they wouldn't have to involuntarily commit me.  

Nurse Gary is watching.
Nurses watched us warily from a glass-walled work area.  They dispensed medications and made rounds to our rooms and coordinated the use of the decrepit, re-purposed pay phone on the wall that served as the patients' only source of contact with the outside world.  Most of them were kindly enough, but one nurse, Nurse Gary, reminded me of a cross between Lurch from The Addams Family and Sam the Eagle from The Muppets.  Or maybe Snoopy doing the vulture pose from behind the glass.  

The most striking thing about being a patient for three days on the ward was witnessing how the group of patients there bonded together.  We all took care of each other.  I think this was the most therapeutic part, and I doubt that was by design.  We ate together and sat around together and told each other blunt stories about our lives.  What was there to hide?  How refreshing to have no pretense or veneer to maintain, nowhere to go in anyone's impression of you but up.

I shared a room with Evelyn, and still do not understand why she was there.  She was elderly, severely disoriented and afraid, and did not know where she was.  I tried to talk to her calmly and at length, until I realized that nothing I said would stick and it wasn't helping, only making things worse.  The nurses finally got tired of her frightened calls for help and kept her sedated for the rest of her stay.  She snapped out of the sedation once, though, when the hospital helicopter took off from a landing pad that sounded like it was right outside our transom window.  She thought a plane was crashing in our room.  I was actually able to reassure her and explain the noise, and she went back to sleep.  Somehow, I got through.

I also struck up a fast friendship with a twenty-something, Jess, who had a laundry list of diagnoses and could curse rings around me - and did so, a lot, loudly.  I was the straight guy in our perpetual comedy routine. 

There was Lou, an older, somewhat heavy-set gentleman, a Vietnam veteran, who had PTSD-based "fits" and would lapse into one several times a day.  They'd last about 20 minutes.  He would twitch and jerk and curse in half-understood syllables.  Once, Jess and I saw a fit start, and Lou was in a flimsy plastic chair waiting to have his blood pressure taken, and of all the times they could have selected to be grossly out of medical and procedural compliance, there were no nurses in the vicinity to assist.  We realized he would fall out of the chair soon.  So we went over and each of us took an arm, and we lifted him up and drug him to a stable armchair in front of the TV, so that he could thrash about safely.  

Nurse Gary came running just then, looking horrified, and chastised us both for interfering with another patient.  I stayed quiet and let Jess respond.  She called him everything but a child of God and pointed out that he should have been there to start with, and that our actions just kept Lou from serious bodily injury, and that he could shove it two feet up his ass if he had a problem with it.  He decided to let it go, on the grounds that we hadn't actually done anything wrong, and walked back to the nurses' station and resumed his vulture-stare at us.

After the fit, Lou thanked us in his raspy, humble gentleman's voice.  He was embarrassed.  I liked Lou.  He tugged on my heartstrings. 

There was the schizophrenic guy, Blake, who wore pajama pants all day long and loved watching South Park and also wanted to burn his mother for a witch.  She visited him once on the ward while I was there.  Jess poked my arm and said, "Shit.  Come on, go to your room and stay there.  Just go."  The common area was suddenly deserted.  

The conversation was muffled, but I heard him tell his mother that he didn't belong there, and wanted to go home right then, and that she was a witch and needed to die and he was going to burn her, and that he wanted to go home.  I don't think he took a breath in the middle of all that, either. 

Later that evening, in front of the TV and card tables, Blake joined us, one leg slung over a chair arm, and casually asked, during a commercial break, if we believed in God.  We all nodded vigorously.  There is a time and place to be out as an atheist, and that was not it.  "He's big, man.  There's fuckin' angels all over the place."  

Sometimes, when I encounter a standard difficult moment in parenting an adolescent, I remember Blake's mother and want to weep for her.  

Carol was in her late 40s and had a busted lip and an expressionless face.  She got there about the same time I did.  She never spoke.

Graduate students and residents and nursing students would come in clumps to visit or tour or "experience the patients".  I struck up a mean game of Uno with three residents one afternoon.  Carol silently slipped into a chair at the table and joined us.  They asked me to tell them why I was there.  I told them the whole story, warts and all, as flippantly as if they'd asked about my job or my car or my candy bar preference.  If they were uncomfortable or afraid of us, they didn't show it.  We laughed a lot.  I think they realized that we were all just human beings, if a little bit fractured.  It's a good thing Carol never got down to one card.  She would have had to break her vows.

One of those residents talked the attending physician, their professor at the med school, into choosing me the next morning as the subject for a demonstration of how to conduct a mental status exam.  They led me to a room where a dozen residents lined one side of a room and the doctor and I had chairs in the middle.  Having an audience did not bring out the best in me.  The doctor told me to remember three objects, horse-balloon-computer.  Check.  He asked me what time it would be if the short hand was on the eight and the long hand was on the five.  I scowled and said the clock would be broken, because the short hand would have to be between the eight and nine for that to be true.  Some of the residents grinned.  He asked me who the current sitting president was, and I said, "Do I really have to say its name?  The Circus Peanut?"  A few poorly-suppressed chuckles from the side of the room.  I had them in my hand.  The doctor cleared his throat and asked me to count backwards from 100 by sevens.  So I did, like Rain Man.  When I got to 44 a few seconds later, he stopped me and said, "Okay, that's enough."  By now, they were laughing openly.  The doctor, maintaining full dignity and composure, cleared his throat again and said, "Sorry, forgive me, I'm a little hoarse this morning."  I deadpanned it.  "Well, it beats being a balloon or a computer."  

It was over.  The whole thing devolved into hysterics and any instructional value was lost.  My favorite resident led me back to the common area and thanked me profusely.  He didn't say for what.  He just turned and walked away, grinning.  I felt a glow inside.  I knew that I had beaten the system, that my inner smart-ass self had survived and was ready to go live again.

Jess gave me her
phone number and I gave her mine on the day we were both discharged, but we've
never used them, and I've long since lost that scrap of paper.  Some chapters end.  

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